The Priesthood That Never Was


by Fr. Stephen Freeman

A recent question concerning the “priesthood of all believers” has been an occasion for personal reflection. What is it about the priesthood of all believers that seems so important for Protestant thought? The idea is rooted in Scripture:

You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ….But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light; who once were not a people but are now the people of God, who had not obtained mercy but now have obtained mercy. (1 Peter 2:5; 9-10 NKJ).

St. Peter is here citing Exodus 19:6,

“And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

The people of God as a kingdom of priests is as old as the Old Covenant itself. However, it is not a priesthood imagined by a good portion of Protestant thought. For what the priesthood of all believers does not mean is that in Christ every man becomes his own priest.

It is this “liberation” from the ordained priesthood that began to be championed in the Reformation.

The nature of priesthood is rightly described in 1 Peter as serving to

“proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness…”

The heart of priesthood is its role of making offering to God – it is the very heart of human existence. We were created to be priests and kings of creation. Our “kingship” is given to us in our “dominion” over the earth (Gen. 1:28). The nature of our priesthood is described in Hebrews:

“For every high priest is appointed to offer both gifts and sacrifices” (Heb 8:3).

We “offer” the “sacrifice” of praise and thanksgiving:

“Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name” (Heb 13:15).

The role of a priest is to make offerings to God. A sacrifice and an offering are one and the same. The primary sacrifice we make is the offering of all things to God, through Christ. It is the recognition that everything we have, and everything we are comes from God and belongs to God. The offering is the very heart of our communion with God. It is this communion, this priesthood, that was disrupted in the fall when we chose to treat the created order as an end in itself.

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate (Gen 3:6).

The eating of the fruit – as an end in itself (“it was good for food”) – was a descent from priesthood into consumer. We ceased to make an offering of the world and chose instead to devour it. As such, it became death for us. Priesthood is the very essence of authentic human existence.

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Christ is the “Great High Priest” in the words of the book of Hebrews. The offering of Himself to God, on behalf of all and for all, is the fulfillment of every offering, the perfection of priesthood. In Him, all of the world is made into a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. Everything finds its true voice in Christ. The priesthood of Christ is the the fulfillment of all human priesthood. Both the universal priesthood towards all creation given to us in the beginning; the priesthood of all believers in the life of the Church; and the ordained priesthood within the Liturgical assembly and the ordered life of the community – all of these are manifestations of the one priesthood of Christ.

The very nature of the priesthood is relational. No offering can be made unless there is something to be offered, someone to offer it and someone to whom it is offered. It is communion. This mystery, with regard to Christ, is expressed by St. John Chrysostom in this manner:

“For You, O Christ our God, are the Offerer and the Offered, the Receiver and the Received”

This same relational character of the priesthood is abandoned by the individualism of each man as his own priest. Such a priesthood declares,

“I have no need of you. I have no need of anyone but myself.”

As such, it is the denial of the Church as the body of Christ.

The paradigm of the self-subsisting priesthood has long since been taken to extremes. Not only does the individual need no other person, he needs no bread, no wine. There is no need for sacrament or Church. The non-sacramental-Church-as-fellowship-of-individual-affinities is the ultimate rejection of priesthood: it is the Church as consumer.

There can be no doubt that the original rejections of the Catholic priesthood during the period of the Reformation was a reaction to rampant abuse. But the correction of abuse does not make adequate ground for a new ideology. In the rush to dismantle an oppressive system (you can only find forgiveness through the prayers of a priest, etc.) the true nature of the priesthood was obscured. The order of the Church was abolished and replaced with something new.

The order of the Church is hierarchical, in the original sense of the word: “holy ordered.” The fulfillment of the Old Covenant by the New does not make priesthood obsolete, nor remove the need for hierarchy. The order of heaven and earth are themselves reflections of the truth of creation and the truth of God Himself. There is an order within the Godhead. The Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, etc. There is an appropriate subordination within the Godhead. The Father is the arche, the “source” of the Godhead in Orthodox language. The New Testament bears witness to the order of the early Church. There are Apostles, Prophets, Pastors, Teachers, etc. There are Bishops and Elders (Presbyters) Deacons and Deaconesses. The pages of the New Testament are replete with exhortations regarding this proper order.

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The title “priest” is somewhat misleading in English. In Greek, a priest is clearly Presbyteros, Elder. Indeed, the English word “priest” is derived from the word “presbyter.” In Russian, the most common word for priest is Svyashchenik (“holy man”). A presbyter exercises “priesthood,” in his ministry, but he also does other things. A Bishop is referred to as our “high priest” in some parts of the Liturgy, for his liturgical function is priestly, but he is also an “overseer” (episkopos) in other matters. There is a priestly ministry of the whole people of God (the proper understanding of the phrase “priesthood of all believers”) that is exercised within the role of the people of God in the Liturgy. That priestly role is not one of passive spectating.

In Orthodox understanding, the priest never offers the Liturgy alone (there can be rare exceptions to this). The Eucharist is an act of the whole people of God, not a performance by one person on behalf of others. The Deacon bids the prayers of the people:

“For the peace of the whole world, the unity of the Churches of God, let us pray to the Lord….”

The people respond with the prayer itself,

“Lord, have mercy.”

The priest adds an exclamation that summarizes the prayer and offers a doxology,

“For to Thee belong all honor, glory and worship, etc.”

And no one voice is more essential than another. The Liturgy fulfills the words of Christ:

“Where two or more are gathered, there am I in the midst of them.”

Priesthood is not the act of an individual.

An additional anxiety of the Protestant every-man-his-own-priest was the concern that an individual had to go through someone else in order to treat with God.

“For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus” (1Tim. 2:5).

When the Church has become corrupted, every relationship brings the threat of corruption. Thus the distancing from the Catholic priesthood during the Reformation was understandable. Probably the greatest unresolved issue of the Reformation itself was located precisely in the priesthood and in the Church structures surrounding it. Anglicans retained the three-fold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon, though it was nearly a century in becoming a settled part of English Protestant life (I think of Cromwell’s reign of terror). Calvin’s reforms established the presbyterian form of governance, creating a radical new structure for the Church. Others opted for congregationalist patterns of various sorts. Church order was the least agreed upon item of reform and eventually created the boundaries that became denominations within Protestantism.

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But the anxiety about “mediation” is a distraction from the reality of the Church. We do nothing alone: the Church is a communion. Interestingly, the principle of mediation underlines the importance of communion. All that we offer to God, we offer through Christ, in the Church:

Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the Church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen. (Eph 3:20-1)

Our modern cultural individualism makes it hard for us to hear the communion-oriented character of the New Testament. We were not taught to pray, “My father,” but “Our father.” The nature of the Christian life, born and nurtured in love, is found in the communion of the Body of Christ. There is no Christianity that is outside the Church. The Church is not an organization to promote Christianity or an organization to promote Christian association – it is the mystical Body of Christ, the living union of God and humanity.

The priesthood within the Church is nothing other than the priesthood of Christ. Within the ordered life of the Church it is manifested in ordained persons. The same priesthood is the primary service of all believers, the purpose of our creation. The action of every priest (whether ordained or not) is an act of communion – the offering and sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit, in the Church.

Glory to God!




About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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